American Classics

Ronald Reagan, Address in Berlin (1987)

On June 12, 1987, Ronald Reagan traveled to West Berlin, to the Brandenburg Gate near the Berlin Wall, to deliver a speech commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin.  Reagan had, at this point, been President for nearly seven years and had been witness to a Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev beginning to show signs of openness through Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika.  And yet, despite these new openings in the policy of the East, Europe was still divided into two distinct halves.  Eastern Europe, under the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, closed itself off from Western Europe, often through physical means (the Berlin Wall being one of the starkest reminders of that separation).  Reagan’s address spoke of a vision of Europe that was open and connected, that was no longer divided, and that was inundated with the principles of freedom.  In giving his speech, Reagan attempted to push Gorbachev more fully to the side of openness. This is nowhere more clear than the famous words uttered by Reagan during his speech: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”


As a public figure and later as President, Ronald Reagan had issued numerous public challenges to the legitimacy of communism and to the continued existence of the Soviet empire.  In June 1982, in a speech to the British Parliament, he had predicted that “the march of freedom and democracy . . . will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.”  (Noting that he would be soon traveling to Berlin, he described the Berlin Wall as “that dreadful gray gash across the city, . . . It is the fitting signature of the regime that built it.”)  In March 1983, in an address to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida, he referred to the USSR as an “evil empire.”  Privately, he spoke of winning the Cold War, not just managing it more successfully.

Reagan’s rhetorical offensive was matched with policies designed to reverse what he regarded as a decade of declining American power and Soviet geopolitical success.  These U.S. measures included significant increases in conventional and nuclear weapons, aid to anti-communist (or anti-Soviet) insurgent movements, and economic and technological restrictions on interactions with the Soviet bloc. He also announced what became known as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, popularly known as “Star Wars”), which he presented as a defensive shield to eliminate the risk of catastrophic nuclear war.

Reagan’s assertive policies, however, had generated fears among allied governments, and publics in the United States and abroad, that the United States was provoking (and perhaps planning) war with the Soviet Union.  Millions took to the streets in Europe to protest the deployment of American intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF), which the NATO alliance had determined was necessary to offset a buildup of Soviet nuclear weapons, particularly the SS-20 missile.  The nuclear freeze movement in the United States pressed for passage of legislation that would halt the U.S. nuclear modernization program (presumably together with similar restraint by the USSR).  The Soviets argued vehemently that SDI, far from being of peaceful intent, was actually intended to provide the United States with a credible first-strike capability.  Moscow also claimed that U.S. arms control proposals – especially one that would eliminate all IN systems from Europe (the “zero option”) – were completely one-sided and non-negotiable.  Those negotiations were suspended by the Soviets at the end of 1983, adding to the popular sense that the two superpowers might indeed be on the brink of a great crisis and perhaps war.

The President was a convinced anti-communist but also a pragmatic politician and diplomat.  He decided he needed to take steps to reassure allies and the American public (he faced reelection in 1984) of his sincere desire for peace. In January 1984, he made a nationally televised speech widely understood as a conciliatory towards the Soviets (he spoke of the common interests of “Ivan” and “Sally,” which transcended the ideological differences between their governments). In 1985, now reelected for a second term, Reagan also perceived that diplomatic breakthroughs might be possible with a new, reform-minded Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev (a man with whom British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, also a devoted anti-communist, thought that “business” might be done).  Reagan and Gorbachev met in Geneva in November 1985, resulting in a modest improvement in the tone of superpower relations and a sense that that the recently-resumed arms control negotiations had some prospect for success.

In October 1986, the two leaders came together again in Reykjavik, Iceland.  During their meetings, it seemed for a moment as if an historic agreement might be reached eliminating ballistic missiles, or nuclear weapons altogether (depending on how one interpreted the discussions).  The agreement foundered, at least according to the public perception, on Reagan’s refusal to abandon the SDI program.

The apparent failure at Reykjavik led many American moderates (including some in the U.S. government) and liberals to criticize Reagan harshly. His rigid ideology, they claimed, had stood in the way of achieving a landmark relaxation in superpower tensions.  On the other hand, many conservatives argued that Reagan was falling into a clever trap set by the Soviets.  By dealing so openly and familiarly with Gorbachev on vital matters of security, Reagan was at least indirectly acknowledging the legitimacy to the Soviet regime, something that his entire career had been spent attacking.  From this perspective, the President was encouraging the long-standing illusion among the American public that arms control agreements could replace a strong defense posture.  The abolition of nuclear weapons, were it even possible, would leave the Soviets free to wage conventional war, a field in which they held substantial military advantages (a point with which nervous European governments privately agreed). On this path it was only a matter of time, conservatives argued, before political pressures would force Reagan to abandon SDI in a chimeric search for peace and a place in history.

Reagan, for his part, was apparently convinced that the United States still held the upper hand, due to the increasing economic stress on the Soviet system and anti-communist geopolitical setbacks being engineered by the United States.  He was prepared to stick to his basic negotiating positions in the belief that Gorbachev would eventually come around.  By mid-1987, the two sides appeared close to a “zero option” INF agreement, something that moderates and liberals applauded and that many (although not all) conservatives could accept.  The former camp feared however that Reagan’s anti-Soviet instincts would lead him to rhetorical overkill that might offend the Soviets and upset the diplomatic applecart.  Conservatives, meanwhile, sought reassuring words from Reagan that he had not “gone wobbly.”

It was in this context that Reagan planned a July 1987 stop in Berlin, as part of a longer trip to Europe.  There is no indication that he intended specifically to use the occasion as an opportunity to send a major diplomatic or political message, although a dramatic historical backdrop was certainly available (in 1963, President Kennedy had delivered his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech there). But such a message was indeed sent.  The Berlin address, even though it was composed through the filter of the administration’s policy and speechwriting process, provides us with a window into Reagan’s thinking at this pivotal moment in the history of the Cold War.[1]

Organization of the Address

As we read Ronald Reagan’s now famous speech, we must first note how the address is organized.  Notice that it is split between three major themes—separation (both mental and physical), freedom (and its follower, prosperity) and arms reduction.  Within the terms of those themes, Reagan offers several proposals to better the situation of both East and West.  And, in a speech full of praise and condemnation, Reagan offers particular praise to the spirit of the Berliners reminded daily of the separation between themselves and their kin.  Although there is no particular demarcation between each of the parts of the speech, I shall address each section over the course of this essay separately.  I will begin with the themes, will note, as he noted, the magnificent spirit of the Berliners—and really, of all humankind—and end with some of the proposals Reagan offered to his listeners.  



A stark reality of life in Berlin from 1961 to 1989 was the wall that separated West Berlin from both the eastern half of the city as well as all of East Germany (we must remember that Berlin was located entirely within East Germany, but that the western part of the city remained, in fact, controlled by the western powers and West Germany).  It was a daily reminder, of course, of the differences between the nations of the West, the United States and its NATO allies, and the nations of the Eastern bloc, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact nations. Along with the Inner German Border, the wall was, in literal fact, a physical manifestation of Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain.”  Ostensibly built to “protect” East Germans, in reality it was a way to keep the Easterners, and other East Europeans who might reach the city, from escaping to the west. Before the wall was built in 1961, many thousands, especially the best and brightest, in fact had done so, to the point where the East German regime seemed on the verge of collapse.

With separation so prominently present in the city, Reagan’s speech touches on both the physical and mental aspects of it.  His location, near the wall itself at the Brandenburg Gate (not a part of the wall), serves to reinforce the theme—here, an American president, leader of the free world, is forced to partake in the same separation as the West Berliners.  Berlin is clearly not whole.  Reagan further reinforces his absence to the East Berliners when he addresses them directly near the beginning of his speech: “To those listening in East Berlin, a special word: Although I cannot be with you, I address my remarks to you just as surely as to those standing here before me.  For I join you, as I join your fellow countrymen in the West, in this firm, this unalterable belief: Es gibt nur ein Berlin.”[2]

The Berlin Wall was clearly a physical manifestation of the differences, the separation, between East and West.  “Behind me stands a wall,” Reagan says,

that encircles the free sectors of this city, part of a vast system of barriers that divides the entire continent of Europe.  From the Baltic, south, those barriers cut across Germany in a gash of barbed wire, concrete, dog runs, and guard towers.  Farther south, there may be no visible, no obvious wall.  But there remain armed guards and checkpoints all the same—still a restriction on the right to travel, still an instrument to impose upon ordinary men and women the will of a totalitarian state.  Yet it is here in Berlin where the wall emerges most clearly; here, cutting across your city, where the news photo and the television screen have imprinted this brutal division of a continent upon the mind of the world.  Standing before the Brandenburg Gate, every man is a German, separated from his fellow men.  Every man is a Berliner, forced to look upon a scar.

At the same time that Reagan recognizes the physical separation of Europe, he entreats his listeners to resist Soviet expansion.  “I understand the fear of war and the pain of division that afflict this continent,” Reagan says.  But, he continues, “To be sure, we in the West must resist Soviet expansion.”  Soviet expansion would lead not to division’s end but its perpetuation.

While the Berlin Wall is an eminently physical manifestation of the division between East and West, it also represents the mental separation between both sides of the Cold War.  There is a certain mental disconnect between both sides, two entirely different ideologies that are incompatible with one another.  This incompatibility leads to misunderstandings and distrust.  Reagan, in fact, attributes the arms race on both sides to distrust: “We must remember a crucial fact: East and West do not mistrust each other because we armed; we are armed because we mistrust each other.”  And, he says, “our differences are not about weapons but about liberty.”  This leads to Reagan’s next theme, the principle upon which both the physical and mental separations lie—the belief in freedom on one side, and the lack of it on the other.


As the leader of the free world, it was more than natural for Reagan, in front of the symbol of the differences between East and West, to make the principle of freedom a core theme of his 1987 address.  As long as that wall is allowed to stand, Reagan asserts, freedom will continue to be an open question in both East and West: “as long as this scar of a wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind.”

The clear rejection of freedom by the Soviet bloc is most clear in the prosperity of the West as compared to the East.  Reagan, for his part, emphasizes the West’s prosperity as part and parcel of freedom—freedom enabled Western prosperity. The unprecedented prosperity of West Germany, Western Europe, and Japan following World War II can be traced back to what Reagan refers to as a policy of freedom, the Marshall Plan.[3]  Reagan tells his listeners that the Marshall Plan was meant to strengthen and rebuild a free world—and in the end, that was exactly what it did: “A strong, free world in the West, that dream became real.  Japan rose from ruin to become an economic giant.  Italy, France, Belgium—virtually every nation in Western Europe saw political and economic rebirth; the European Community was founded.”  The heights to which freedom has taken the world have proven “one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity.  Freedom replace the ancient hatreds among the nations with comity and peace.  Freedom is the victor.”

West Germany, in particular, profited from freedom in an almost miraculous fashion.  Freed first from the shackles of Nazism, and then allowed by the occupying powers (the United States, Great Britain, and France) to (mostly) pursue its own policies, West Germany rose from the utter destruction of the Second World War to witness what can only be called an economic miracle.  There is even a word for this event in German: Wirtschaftswunder.  Reagan attributes the wirtschaftswunder to a recognition in West Germany of the superiority of a life of freedom to a life of restrictions: “Adenauer, Erhard, Reuter, and other leaders understood the practical importance of liberty—that just as truth can flourish only when the journalist is given freedom of speech, so prosperity can come about only when the farmer and businessman enjoy economic freedom.”

A listener unaware of the relative differences in prosperity of the West and the East might very well ask Reagan to elaborate:  what, exactly, does freedom provide to the West that the East lacks?  Reagan, of course, has an answer:  “In the Communist world, we see failure, technological backwardness, declining standards of health, even want of the most basic kind—too little food.  Even today, the Soviet Union still cannot feed itself.”   A simple lack of food and substandard medical care betray the problems of the East; subjugation and tight economic controls have done nothing to solve these very human problems.  In the land of freedom, on the other hand, these problems have nearly been solved; the West is more than capable of feeding and caring for not only itself but the hungry and sick the world over.

Bringing attention to the difference between East and West, is, in a sense, Reagan’s attempt to bring the Soviet bloc to the shores of freedom.  Reagan’s words become a symbolic “Ellis Island,” exhorting the Soviet Union and the East to “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”[4]  He might be speaking directly to a Western audience, but the East is very much listening—and, as Reagan points out, very close to landing on freedom’s shore:

And now the Soviets themselves may, in a limited way, be coming to understand the importance of freedom.  We hear much from Moscow about a new policy of reform and openness.  Some political prisoners have been released.  Certain foreign news broadcasts are no longer being jammed.  Some economic enterprises have been permitted to operate with greater freedom from state control.

If the Eastern bloc does not land on freedom’s shore soon, “it will become obsolete.”  If the Soviet Union and the East do take that final step, and land on freedom’s shore, Reagan affirms to them the West’s openness to it: “We welcome change and openness; for we believe freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace … We in the West stand ready to cooperate with the East to promote true openness, to break down barriers that separate people, to create a safer, freer world.”

Arms Reduction

Reagan spends a large part of his address advocating arms reduction on both sides of the conflict.  This was not new; arms reduction and arms control talks had been going on since the 1950s and had culminated in several agreements, including a limited nuclear test ban treaty, an interim agreement to control strategic offensive weapons, generally known as SALT I, a treaty limiting anti-ballistic missile systems, and SALT II (although that treaty was never ratified by the United States).[5]  As we have noted, the United States was then engaged in the INF Talks, as well as negotiations over deep strategic nuclear force reductions (START), and defense and space issues (which involved SDI).  Reagan makes the point that arms reduction cannot be one sided or it will not work, citing the story of Soviet deployment of their SS-20 missiles: “Beginning 10 years ago, the Soviets challenged the Western alliance with a grave new threat, hundreds of new and more deadly SS-20 nuclear missiles, capable of striking every capital in Europe.”  NATO quickly countered by threatening a deployment of its own INF systems, while providing the Soviets with an opportunity to negotiate a solution agreeable to both sides, ideally by eliminating that entire class of missiles on both sides (NATO’s so-called “Double-Track Decision,” deployment and diplomacy.[6])  As Reagan points out, the Soviets first refused to bargain, “the alliance, in turn, prepared to go forward with its counterdeployment” and the Soviets ultimately left the table altogether.  However, “through it all, the alliance held firm … Because we remained strong, the Soviets came back to the table.”

This was obviously an effective policy; and so while Reagan pushes for more arms reductions and limitations on both sides of the Cold War, he also argues that remaining strong (some might say threatening) is the best way to reduce arms: “Because we remained strong, today we have within reach the possibility, not merely of limiting the growth of arms, but of eliminating, for the first time, an entire class of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth … At the talks in Geneva, we have also proposed deep cuts in strategic offensive weapons.  And the Western allies have likewise made far-reaching proposals to reduce the danger of conventional war and to place a total ban on chemical weapons.”  The speech contends that in order for bilateral or multilateral agreements to occur at all there must be a show of strength to counter the appearance of strength on the other side.

Still, Reagan recognizes in this speech that we cannot count on the other side always to be forthcoming at the weapons bargaining table, and so he takes the chance to advocate further SDI.  Reagan describes his aim in the speech: “the United States is pursuing the Strategic Defense Initiative—research to base deterrence not on the threat of offensive retaliation, but on defenses that can truly defend; on systems, in short, that will not target populations, but shield them.  By these means we seek to increase the safety of Europe and all the world.”  If the United States cannot count on the Soviet Union to be committed to reducing arms, at the very least it can find ways to protect itself without also engaging in a parallel offensive arms race.


Although one could consider “spirit” to be another theme of Reagan’s speech, he touches on it only briefly when he commends Berliners for their will to endure through the trials the Soviets have forced onto them.  It is not a long portion of the speech, but it is significant in its sentiment—it is representative of the human spirit, despite attempts to push it down, despite attempts to rob Berliners, both East and West, of their essential human liberties.

In these four decades, as I have said, you Berliners have built a great city.  You’ve done so in spite of threats—the Soviet attempts to impose the East-mark, the blockade.  Today the city thrives in spite of the challenges implicit in the very presence of this wall.  What keeps you here?  Certainly there’s a great deal to be said for your fortitude, for your defiant courage.  But I believe there’s something deeper, something that involves Berlin’s whole look and feel and way of life—not mere sentiment.  No one could live long in Berlin without being completely disabused of illusions.  Something instead, that has seen the difficulties of life in Berlin but chose to accept them, that continues to build this good and proud city in contrast to a surrounding totalitarian presence that refuses to release human energies or aspirations.  Something that speaks with a powerful voice of affirmation, that says yes to this city, yes to the future, yes to freedom.  In a word, I would submit that what keeps you in Berlin is love—love both profound and abiding.

Perhaps this gets to the root of the matter, to the most fundamental distinction of all between East and West.  The totalitarian world produces backwardness because it does such violence to the spirit, thwarting the human impulse to create, to enjoy, to worship.  The totalitarian world finds even symbols of love and of worship an affront.


It is in this context that Reagan issues his famous challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev: “There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace.  General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate!  Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate!  Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

If Gorbachev responded affirmatively to Reagan’s challenge, there would be a renewed push for liberty in the East, perhaps even reconciliation for both sides.  But Reagan also makes several more concrete proposals in his speech to improve the lot of Berliners, and moderate East-West relations, short of a single, dramatic event.  One of those proposals is a call for expanded air access to the city: “To open Berlin still further to all Europe, East and West, let us expand the vital air access to this city, finding ways of making commercial air service to Berlin more convenient, more comfortable, and more economical.  We look to the day when West Berlin can become one of the chief aviation hubs in all central Europe.”  Berlin, we must recall, was deep in the heart of East Germany, which itself was walled off from West Germany.  Expanding air access to the Western part of the city would do wonders for its growth, compounding the wirtschaftswunder we have already discussed.  If the standard of living between 1950 and 1960 could be doubled with economic measures, could it not be increased (even if not doubled) again with ease of commercial air access?  Reagan seems to think that the city would be in much better shape economically if it were.  Moreover, with ease of access, Reagan may be hoping that an influx of persons enmeshed in Western traditions, even if in West Berlin, will open discussion on all sides about liberty and dropping the wall.

Reagan has a few other proposals besides the increased air access. He tells his listeners that international organizations will be meeting in Berlin soon: “It would be only fitting for Berlin to serve as the site of United Nations meetings, or world conferences on human rights and arms control or other issues that call for international cooperation.”  He proposes summer youth exchanges, where young Eastern Berliners can come to the West to “establish hope for the future” by “enlightening young minds.” He also suggests that East Berlin sponsor visits from Western German children.  His final suggestion centers on the Olympic Games.  If sport has a tendency to bring people together, why not have an Olympics that takes place in both the Eastern and Western halves of the city?  “What better way,” Reagan says, “to demonstrate to the world the openness of this city than to offer in some future year to hold the Olympic games here in Berlin, East and West?”  Reagan helpfully points to the example of South Korea, host of the 1988 Summer Olympics, allowing some events to be held at venues in North Korea.


Ronald Reagan’s 1987 Address in Berlin, at the Brandenburg Gate, so close to the Berlin Wall, is perhaps most well-known for the sound-bite, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”  And while Reagan certainly exhorted the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to rid Berlin of the wall so horribly tearing it in two, the other parts of his speech are certainly worth considering.  When we take into account the themes of the speech—separation, freedom, and the importance of arms reduction— Reagan provides us with a relatively clear view of what life in Berlin during the Cold War has been like.  The West is starkly contrasted with the East.  Reagan’s speech is, in part, meant to encourage those in the East to adopt the systems of freedom that have allowed the West to prosper where the East has not.  Additionally, Reagan leave us with several more-or-less concrete proposals to move forward the rapport between East and West—and, again, perhaps most importantly, his direct challenge to Mr. Gorbachev.  Ultimately, although it would take almost two more years, the destruction of that wall and the opening of borders between the two halves of Germany did happen, and Germany, once again, was whole.


[1] For an account of the composition of the speech (by an admittedly self-interested participant in the process), see Peter A. Robinson, “Tear Down This Wall: How Top Advisors Opposed Reagan’s Challenge to Gorbachev – But Lost,  For a somewhat different account, see Anthony R. Dolan, “Four Little Words.” Wall Street Journal, 8 November 2009,

[2] Es gibt nur ein Berlin: There is only one Berlin.

[3] Japan was not included in the Marshall Plan, which was intended for Europe, although various other U.S. economic, diplomatic, and military assistance was rendered to Tokyo. The United States formally offered to include the Soviet Union and Eastern European nations in the program, but Stalin refused the offer.

[4] From “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus.  See:

[6] Read more about the “Double-Track Decision” here: and here:


For Further Reading

The Speech

For Further Reading

Cannon, Lou. President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.

Dolan, Anthony R. “Four Little Words.” Wall Street Journal, 8 November 2009,

Hayward, Steven F.  The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution.  New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009.

Mann, James. “Tear Down that Myth,” 10 June 2007, New York Times

Reagan, Ronald.  An American Life: The Autobiography.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.

Robinson, Peter A. “Tear Down This Wall: How Top Advisors Opposed Reagan’s Challenge to Gorbachev – But Lost,” Prologue Magazine (Summer 2007),

Shultz, George. Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State. New York: Scribner’s, 1993.